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Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Great Myths of the Migrations, no.1: The Huns and Deformed Skulls

A deformed skull from an 'Alamannic'
If there is any aspect of 'Hunnic' archaeology that might be called 'well-known', I suppose it is the 'fact' that the Huns had deformed skulls.  Roman authors said they were misshapen beasts and so when people found artificially deformed skulls (effected by binding the child's head between boards) they leapt to the conclusion (not least by ignoring the ethnographic traditions within which Ammianus and the others were writing) that these must be Huns.  And that is the interpretation you will find in most books on the subject (my Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West included, although I do strike a note of caution).

However, it is rather less straightforward than that.  For one thing,  I think I am right in saying that the known individuals with deformed skulls are more often women than men,
Joachim Werner's map of cranial deformation
whereas the Romans were talking about Hunnic warriors.  Be that as it may, here (right) is a map of deformed skulls up by Joachim Werner a long time ago (redrawn in an article about the cemetery at Sézegnin in Switzerland - where the symbol in the box is - where the three examples were all female).  It is almost certainly out of date although I don't think the overall pattern has changed very much.  The map has been generally used to argue that the Huns had a cultural influence on the Germani whom they subdued, so that the latter adopted the 'Hunnic' practice of skull deformation.  In a rather circular argument, this is then used as proof that the Huns deformed their skulls...

The western European section of Werner's distribution
Why would such a circular argument be necessary?  You might have noticed that the area where Attila's Hunnic Empire was (which I have shaded pink on the map at left) is not exactly filled with symbols on the map above. There are quite a lot of deformed skulls in the Steppe, as you can see from the full version above. Many are of the Attilan era.   But you can see that there are very few deformed skulls of this group west of the lower Don and the Volga and hardly any at all west of the Dniepr.  There are many times more sites with evidence of cranial deformation between the Rhine and the middle Danube than there are between the middle Danube and the Dniepr, a huge area.  What's more, if you look closely, if you can blow the map up sufficiently, you'll see that there are in fact even fewer steppes cranial deformations in that rather large area in Attila's day.  In fact, leaving aside some in the Crimea, there are, as far as I can see, only two sites with these skulls on Werner's map between the Lower Don and the Danube that belong to Attila's era.  It might be thought a bit naughty of me now to concentrate only on the western half of the map but Werner had himself slightly distorted the image the other way, by not showing all the deformed skulls that were known in western Europe from the first millennium.  A reasonable number are known from the south of France, centring on the area I have shaded blue and spreading in date from the early Roman period through to the tenth century.  You'll note that this area is rather close to Sézegnin...  Anyway, cranial definition was known in the west before the appearance of the Huns.

Note at this stage that there is no reason to associate the examples on the steppe specifically with the Huns rather than the other groups that inhabited the region.Indeed in the Volga area the rite is known as early as the 2nd century.

Cranial Deformation in the 'Age of Attila'
The picture only becomes more complex if you sort out the burials by date.   Let's look, first, at the distribution of burials of individuals with deformed skulls from the actual time of Hunnic domination north of the Danube.  Let's take this as, say, c.400 to c.450, although Hunnic domination of the areas now in Germany can't seriously be postulated until the 430s at least and was probably never very intensive, breaking up within a couple of decades at most in any case.  At right I have crudely rubbed out the later examples and left only those dated by Werner to the 5th century - remember, first, that there may be some new examples here and there and, secondly, that there may be some missing in south-eastern France.  Undated examples have been left on.  You'll note that here the Hunnic Empire's 'core area' is even emptier than in the overall picture.  Remember too that, if anything, the Steppe distribution of cranial deformation at this time is moving back eastwards...  The real area of density in Europe is to the west of the Huns, and - and this is the really odd thing - largely west of the Danube, inside  the Roman Empire.  This part of the world was being infiltrated by all sorts of shadowy small peoples, even the existence of some of whom isn't certain (Skiri, Turcilingi, Rugi, Gepids, Heruls etc., etc.) but if this is a barbarian practice then it originates inside the old limes.  Maybe these people were trying physically to distinguish themselves from the provincial Romans?  Either way, if we were allowing the archaeological evidence to speak for itself we would hardly see this map as proof that cranial deformation was something introduced into the west from the steppes via the Carpathian basin.

Cranial deformation at the end of the 5th century and in
the 6th century
Now let's look at a slightly later situation.  In the map at left I have rubbed out all the examples from the 'age of Attila' (and the undated ones, which probably is an error) and left only the ones from the end of the 5th century and the 6th century.  Remember again that there are new discoveries and the southern French examples missing.  Now there is a cluster of deformed skulls in the Hunnic Empire's core area - but dating to after the end of that Empire!  The main area of distribution has shifted to an area just west of the middle Elbe, with some outliers on the Rhine.  If I reinstated the undated examples there would be a thin thread of possible examples connecting the two groups shaded in green.  The western distribution, as it happens, is not dissimilar from the distribution of supposedly 'Thuringian' metalwork from the same sort of period (see below, right).  If anything, then, when this rite spread to the Merovingian world, it may have been a sign of Thuringian identity but, from these distribution maps, there is precious little evidence to suggest that the Thuringians adopted it from their Hunnic overlords.

What a closer study of the distribution suggests is that the fifth-century practice of cranial deformation originated among the mix of people west of the Hungarian stretch of the Danube  and then spread out to east and west. By this stage there are very few examples in the Steppes region.  In the east the practice's appearance may be something to do with the competing political identities in the complicated political 'interregnum' that lasted in the area from the collapse of the Hunnic realm to the establishment of Avar hegemony over a century later.  The maps to the right (from Barbarian Migrations) show how the Elbe and connecting rivers were a real artery of cultural exchange in the fifth and sixth centuries, as they had been earlier.  That the practice of cranial deformation should have spread to the Thuringians along this route is unsurprising.  Here it may have become a sign of Thuringian ethnicity, as that interesting realm spread its hegemony over other groups in trans Rhenan barbaricum during the later fifth century.  I argued in 2007 that the presence of 'Thuringian' metalwork was related to this, even if I suggested that those buried with it might be those claiming Thuringian identity in local politics, rather than actual Thuringian immigrants.  Some valuable work is being done, using isotope analysis, on whether women with deformed skulls have married in to particular communities from outside.  If they are they could represent a different element of the process.  But either way I think we have to get away from the assumption that deformed skulls necessarily have anything to do with Huns.

* Map from Christian Simon, 'La déformation crânienne artificielle de la nécropole de Sézegnin GE.' Archäologie der Schweiz/Archéologie Suisse/Archeologia Svizzera 2 (1979), pp.186-88.


  1. But what about deformed skulls discovered in Kerch, Omsk and Pokrovka in the Urals? Also witness skull deformation depicted in Kushan/Hephthalite/Huna coins. It seems to me that the practice was quite common in late Sarmatian period and thus communicated to Huns ( Alans and Sarmatians being incorporated into Hunnic tribal confederation) and also spread to Western Europe by Alans and Sarmatians who refused Hunnic supremacy and settled in Gaul

  2. I also saw a deformed sull from the Sarmatian period in the museum at Chisinau, Moldova.


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